Ben Zobrist is a winner. He demonstrated his winning skills in 2015 when he led the Kansas City Royals to a World Series title. He proved that he knew how to win, again, in 2016 when he led the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years, earning World Series MVP along the way. Did you know, though, that one of the first times his winning skills emerged was in 2003 with the Woodchucks?
Coming out of high school, after no college recruiters had made him an offer to play college baseball, Zobrist considered his baseball career over. He wasn’t planning to give college baseball a try until his high school baseball coach encourage him to spend $50 to attend a college showcase event in Peoria, Illinois. He signed to play for Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. Eventually that $50 would prove to be the best investment of Zobrist’s life.
At Olivet, an NAIA baseball school, Zobrist was originally cast as a pitcher. It was only after several other middle infielders failed, that Zobrist was given a chance to play shortstop. He embraced that opportunity and never gave up the position leading Olivet to three conference titles and two NAIA World Series appearances. He finished his time at Olivet with a career batting average of .376 and still holds the record for the school’s longest hitting streak at 25. As an example of his versatility, Zobrist also ranks third in saves at Olivet with six during the 2002 season. When it came to summer baseball, though, Zobrist was still an unknown and it was only after he was seen on a scouting trip by Coach Steve Foster and former Woodchucks owner Clark Eckhoff that he was signed to play in the summer of 2003.
The 2003 Woodchuck team was loaded with talent. They led the league in hitting with a .280 average, 377 runs, 605 hits and 54 home runs. The pitching staff was also strong with four pitchers eventually reaching the major leagues. Ben Zobrist wasn’t even the best player on the team. That would have been Mike Pankratz who was voted Northwoods League MVP after posting a .699 slugging percentage with 12 home runs. In an interesting twist, Ben Zobrist was voted the Woodchuck MVP.
The team headed to the playoffs in 2003 without their top two pitchers. That implied that the Woodchucks would need to hit their way to a championship. In the semi-finals against the Madison Mallards, the Woodchucks lost the first game 8-1, but then came back to win the next two games. In the championship series against St. Cloud, the Woodchucks again lost the first game (6-1) but came back to win the final two games. Ben Zobrist didn’t stand out during the playoffs, but he did everything he could to help the team win. He went 3-5 in the second game in Madison and closed out the second game against St. Cloud with a scoreless inning. In the final game, Zobrist went 0-2 but scored an important run by hustling around from second base on an error.
The Coach of the 2003 team, Steve Foster, called Ben Zobrist a “versatile athlete that could play anywhere on the field.” During the 2003 season he played shortstop, second base, third base and pitched. The versatility would show through years later. On the Kansas City Royals World Series Championship team, Zobrist played second base and batted second. With the Chicago Cubs he played right field and batted fourth. Wherever he played, Ben Zobrist was known as a leader. Coach Foster called him “a tremendous team guy and selfless.”
Upon receiving the team’s MVP award, Ben Zobrist reflected; “The Woodchucks have been good to me and given me so many opportunities. I’m excited to accept this award, not on behalf of my own achievement, but on behalf of everyone on the team.”
After leaving the Woodchucks in the summer of 2003, Ben Zobrist transferred to Dallas Baptist for an opportunity to play Division I baseball. He was drafted in the 6th round by the Houston Astros and later traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays where he made his MLB debut. Zobrist played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays from 2006 to 2013 earning team MVP honors in 2009 and two All Star berths. In 2013 he was traded to the Oakland A’s and again traded to Kansas City in mid-season. In the post season with Kansas City he hit .303 with 15 runs, 20 hits, 2 home runs and 6 RBIs. After the season he signed a four year contract with the Chicago Cubs. He earned the 2016 World Series MVP by hitting. 357 with 5 runs and 2 RBIs that included the game winning RBI in game seven.
Ben Zobrist would retire in early 2022 but said he would be open to returning to the Cubs in a non-player capacity down the road.
The Woodchucks start their 30th season of Northwoods League Baseball in Madison, WI on Monday, May 29th. The team returns home for the 2023 home opener at Athletic Park on Tuesday, May 30th. Group tickets and ticket packages are on sale now by calling 715.845.5055. Single game tickets will go on sale Monday, April 24th at 10am.